Leonardo Da Vinci
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Leonardo Da Vinci

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81 pages
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Was Leonardo’s pronounced vocation for scientific research a help or a hindrance to him as an artist? It is normal to quote him as an example of scientific and artistic theory joined together. In him, genius took on a new meaning combining reason that actually reinforced the imagination and the emotions. A profound savant and an incomparable creator, he was the only man in the history of mankind who has at once delved into the most radiant beauty and who has united the science of Aristotle with the art of Phidias.
Studying nature with passion and all the independence proper to his character, Leonardo da Vinci did not fail to combine precision with liberty and truth with beauty. The master’s reason of being and glory consist in this final emancipation, this perfect mastery of modeling, of illumination, and of expression, and of this breadth and freedom. Others may have struck out new paths also, but none traveled further or mounted higher than this master of Renaissance art.

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Date de parution 09 décembre 2019
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781783104215
Langue English
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Exrait

Eugène Müntz



LEONARDO DA VINCI
Artist, Thinker and Man of Science
Text: Eugène Müntz (extracts)
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ISBN: 978-1-78310-421-5
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Publisher’s Note
Out of respect for the author’s original work, this text has not been updated, particularly regarding changes to the attribution and dates of the works, which have been and are still at times, uncertain.
Contents
I. Leonardo’s Childhood and His First Works
II. The Court of the Sforzi, The Virgin of the Rocks and the Masterpiece of Santa Maria delle Grazie
The Court of the Sforzi
The Virgin of the Rocks
The Masterpiece of Santa Maria delle Grazie
III. Artist, Thinker and Man of Science
Leonardo’s Academy
Leonardo’s Dealings with the Antique
The Poet, the Thinker and the Man of Science
IV. The Downfall of Lodovico il Moro and the Consequences
Saint Anne
The Battle of Anghiari
Mona Lisa
Leda
V. His Return to Milan and his Exile in France in the Service of Francis I
His Return to Milan
Leonardo’s Final Days working under Francis I and his Great Influence
Biography
List of illustrations
Bust of a Young Woman , 1452-1519. Drawing with red chalk on paper. Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice.
I. Leonardo’s Childhood and His First Works
The artist Leonardo da Vinci embodies both modern intellect and the combination of superior expression in art and science: a thinker, a poet and a wizard, Leonardo da Vinci is an artist whose fascination is still unrivalled today.
While studying his art in its incomparable variety, we find in his very caprices, to use Edgar Quinet’s motto with a slight modification, “the laws of the Italian Renaissance and the geometry of universal beauty”.
Outside of the small number of his finished compositions: The Virgin of the Rocks , The Last Supper , Saint Anne , and the Mona Lisa , his painted and sculpted works were left to us in marvellous fragments. We must turn to his drawings to understand all the tenderness of his heart and all the wealth of his imagination. Two specific periods of human life fixed Leonardo’s attention: adolescence and old age; childhood and maturity had less interest for him. He has left us a whole series of adolescent types, some dreamy, some ardent.
In modern art, I can think of no creations so free, superb, spontaneous, in a word, divine, to oppose to the marvels of antiquity. Thanks to Leonardo’s genius these winged diaphanous figures evoke a desire to be transported to this region of perfection.
When he depicted maturity, Leonardo displayed vigour, energy, and an implacable determination; men resembling an oak tree like the figure shown in their solid carved form at the Windsor Library. This drawing is comparable with another drawing where the personage is younger.
Old age passes before us in all its diverse aspects of majesty or decrepitude. Some faces are reduced to the mere bony substructure while in others we note the deterioration of specific features such as the hooked nose, the chin drawn up to the mouth, the relaxed muscles or a balding head. Foremost among these examples is the master’s self-portrait which portrays a powerful head with piercing eyes under puckered eyelids, a mocking mouth, an almost bitter in expression, a delicate, well-proportioned nose, long hair and a long disordered beard which resembles that of a magician.
If we turn to his evocations of the feminine ideal we will meet a freshness and variety of style. His women were candid and enigmatic as well as proud and tender, their eyes misty with languor, or their brilliant with indefinable smiles. Yet, similar to Donatello, he was one of those exceptionally great artists who lived a life where woman did not play an important role. While Eros showered his arrows all around the master in the epicurean world of the Renaissance; while Giorgione and Raphael died victims of passions too fervently reciprocated; while Andrea del Sarto sacrificed his honour for the love of his capricious wife, Lucrezia Fedi; while Michelangelo, the sombre misanthrope, cherished an affection no less ardent than respectful for Vittoria Colonna, Leonardo, in contrast, consecrated himself without reserve to art and science and soared above all human weaknesses, the delights of the mind sufficing him. He proclaimed it in plain terms: “Fair humanity passes, but art endures” ( Cosa bella mortal passa e non arte ).
Painter and sculptor, Leonardo was also an incredibly accomplished poet. He is, indeed, pre-eminently a poet; first of all, in his pictures, which evoke a whole world of delicious impressions; and secondly, in his prose, notably in his Trattato della Pittura, which has only lately been given to the world in its integrity.
The thinker and the moralist are both allied to the poet. Leonardo’s aphorisms and maxims form a veritable treasury of Italian wisdom at the time of the Renaissance. They offer an evangelic gentleness and an infinite sweetness and serenity.
The man of science, in his turn, demands our homage. It is not a secret to anyone that Leonardo was a savant of the highest order. He discovered twenty laws, a single one of which has sufficed for the glory of his successors. He invented the very method of modern science. The names of certain men of genius, Archimedes, Christopher Columbus, Copernicus, Galileo, Harvey, Pascal, Newton, Lavoisier and Cuvier are associated with discoveries of greater renown. Nevertheless, is there another who united such a multitude of innate gifts, who brought a curiosity so passionate, an ardour so penetrating to bear on such various branches of knowledge? Or who had such illuminating flashes of genius and such an intuition of the unknown links connecting things capable of being harmonized?
In this brief sketch, we have some of the traits that made Leonardo the equal of Michelangelo and Raphael as one of the sovereign masters of sentiment, thought and beauty.
It is necessary to commence this dialogue at the beginning of the master’s artistic life. The painter of the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, the sculptor of the equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza, the scientific genius who foresaw so many of our modern discoveries and inventions was born in 1452 in the town called Empoli, on the right bank of the Arno, between Florence and Pisa. The little town of Vinci, in which he first saw the light, lies hidden away among the multitudinous folds of Monte Albano.
Certain biographers describe the castle in which Leonardo first saw the light. They conjured up a tutor who was attached to the family and a library where the child first found food for his burning curiosities. All this is legend and not based on actual fact though there actually was a castle in Vinci, but it was a fortress and a stronghold held by Florence. As for Leonardo’s parents, we only know that they lived in a very modest house, but we do not even know for certain if this house was situated within the walls of Vinci itself or beyond it in the village of Anchiano.
Their domestic help consisted of one fante, a woman servant, at a wage of eight florins per annum.
His father, Ser Piero, was twenty-two or twenty-three years old at the time of Leonardo’s birth. He was, according to recent documentation, an active, intelligent and enterprising man, and the true supporter of the family. Beginning with very little, his practice rapidly grew and he acquired a large amount of property and land.
While still very young, Ser Piero formed a relationship with the woman who, though never his wife, became the mother of his eldest son. Her name was Catarina and in all probability a simple peasant girl from Vinci or its vicinities. (An anonymous writer of the sixteenth century confirms that Leonardo was “ per madre nato di bon sangue .”)It was a short romance. Ser Piero married in the year of Leonardo’s birth, while Catarina married a man of her own standing who answered to the name of Chartabrigha or Accartabrigha di Piero del Vaccha, most likely a peasant as well because of the lack of work available in Vinci. Contrary to modern customs and traditional code, Ser Piero took care of the rearing of his child.
Leonardo da Vinci united physical beauty and infinite grace in all his actions and as for his talent, no matter what difficulty presented itself, he solved it without effort. In him dexterity was allied to exceeding great strength; his spirit and his courage showed something kingly and magnanimous.
Finally, his reputation became so widespread during his lifetime that it has extended into today. Vasari, to whom we owe this eloquent appreciation, concludes with a phrase untranslatable in its power of rendering the majesty of the person described: “ Lo splendor dell’ aria sua, che bellissimo era, rissereneva ogni animo mesto ” (the splendour of his aspect, which was beautiful beyond measure, rejoiced the most sorrowful souls).
Leonardo was naturally gifted with unusually muscular strength. He could twist the clapper of a bell or a horseshoe as if it were made of lead. Along with his unnatural strength came certain weakness that was mingled with this extraordinary aptitude. The artist was left-handed and in his old age paralysis finally deprived him of the use of his right hand.


Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio , The Madonna with the Child and Angels , c . 1470. Tempera on wood panel, 96.5 x 70.5 cm. The National Gallery, London.


Drapery Study for a Sitting Figure , c. 1470. Pen, grey tempera and white highlights, 26.6 x 23.3 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
From the very beginning – according to Vasari’s testimony – the child showed an immoderate and at times even extravagant thirst for knowledge of any kind. He would have made even more extraordinary progress had it not been for his marked instability of purpose. He threw himself ardently into the study of one science after another and bounded to the very root of questions, but abandoned work as readily as he began it. During the few months he devoted himself to mathematics, he acquired such knowledge of the subject that he confused his master all the time and put him to shame. He was also very musical. He excelled particularly on the lute, the instrument he used later for the accompaniment of the songs he improvised. In short, like another Faust, he desired to cross the vast cycle of human knowledge and, not content to have assimilated the discoveries of his contemporaries, to address himself directly to nature in order to extend the field of science.
Leonardo’s father is assumed to have resided in Florence more often than in Vinci and it was undoubtedly in the illustrious capital of Tuscany, not in the obscure little town of Vinci, that the brilliant faculties of the child progressed and developed. It has been discovered that the site where the house that was once occupied by the family stood in the Piazza in San Firenze where the Gondi palace now stands. Apparently their home disappeared towards the end of the fifteenth century when Giuliano Gondi pulled it down to make room for the palace to which he gave his name.
According to the story, Ser Piero da Vinci was inspired by the marked aptitude of his son and took some of his sketches to his friend Verrocchio who he begged to give his opinion. They made an excellent impression and Verrocchio did not hesitate to accept the youth as his pupil.
As seen elsewhere, the majority of the artists of the Renaissance were distinguished by their precocity. Andrea del Sarto began his apprenticeship at seven years old; Perugino at nine; Fra Bartolommeo at ten; at fifteen Michelangelo executed the mask of a satyr that attracted the notice of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Finally, Mantegna painted his first masterpiece – the Madonna of the Church of St Sophia at Padua – when he was seventeen.
Andrea Verrocchio (born 1435) was only seventeen years older than his pupil, an advantage that seemed relatively slight over such a precocious genius as Leonardo. We may add that the worthy Florentine sculptor developed very slowly and had long been absorbed with goldsmith’s work and other tasks of a secondary character. Notwithstanding the grand scale of his growing taste for sculpture, he took to the last those decorative works that were the delight of his contemporaries, the Majani, the Civitali and the Ferrucci. We learned from a document from 1488 that up until the very eve of his death he was engaged working on a marble fountain for King Mathias Corvinus. From therein he proves himself to be a true quattrocentist.
The famous art critic Rio, spoke of the natural sympathy between Verrocchio and Leonardo stating that:
“in neither artist does harmony exclude force; they show the same admiration for the masterpieces of Greek and Roman antiquity, the same predominance of the plastic qualities, the same passion for finish of details in great as well as small compositions, the same respect for perspective and geometry in their connection with painting, the same pronounced taste for music, the same tendency to leave a work unfinished and begin a fresh one and, more remarkable still, the same predilection for the war-horse, the monumental horse and all the studies appertaining thereto.”
However, these points of contact could be due more to chance rather than any intellectual relationship between the two temperaments? Verrocchio had a limited spirit, a prosaic character while Leonardo, on the other hand, was the personification of unquenchable curiosity, of aristocratic tastes, of innate grace and elegance. One raises himself laboriously towards a higher ideal while the other brings that ideal with him into the world.
Under this master Leonardo was thrown in with several fellow-students who, though without attaining his glory, also achieved a brilliant place among painters. The first of these was Perugino.
It is possible that Leonardo may have also met another artist, much his senior, in Verrocchio’s studio, where he was working rather as an assistant than a pupil – Sandro Botticelli.
Taking into consideration Leonardo’s facetious humour, his delight in mystification and his extravagant habits, it is highly probable that he formed close relationships with a band of hare-brained young fellows who frequented Verrocchio’s studio whose wild doings often scandalized the good citizens of Florence and formed the characteristic traits of Florentine manners. If in the Umbrian schools, the embryo painter (such as Raphael) had all the gentleness and timidity of a young girl while in Florence, during Giotto’s time, practical joking never ceased to form an integral part of the education of an artist.
Leonardo soon abandoned the common practice of studying fabric from models. In the Trattato della Pittura he strongly advises students not to make use of models over which paper or thin leather has been drawn but, on the contrary, to sketch their draperies from nature, carefully noting differences of texture.
However rebellious Leonardo may have been to contemporary influences, it was impossible that there should have been no interchange of ideas and no affinity of style between him and his master. To make them better understood, I will compare the various stages in the development of Verrocchio’s art, as I have endeavoured to define them, with some of the more salient landmarks in the evolution of his immortal pupil.
We do not know for certain when he entered Verrocchio’s studio, but it was long before 1472, at that time being only twenty years of age, he was received into the guild of painters of Florence.
Should I be accused of temerity if, armed with these dates, I venture to maintain, contrary to common opinion, that between pupil and master there was an interchange of ideas particularly advantageous to the latter; that Leonardo gave to Verrocchio as much, if not more, than he received from him? By the time that the fragrance of grace and beauty began to breathe from Verrocchio’s work, Leonardo was no longer an apprentice, but a consummate master. The Baptism of Christ is not the only work in which the collaboration of the two artists is palpable and the contrast between the two manners self-evident; this contrast is still more striking between the works of Verrocchio made prior to Leonardo’s entry into his studio and those he produced later.
Vasari tells us that after having seen the kneeling angel at the side of the Christ painted by Leonardo, Verrocchio, in despair, threw down his brushes and gave up painting.
A careful study of the picture confirms the probability of this story. Nothing could be more unsatisfactory, more meagre, than the two chief figures, Christ and St John; without distinction of form, or poetry of expression, they are simply laborious studies of some aged and unlovely model, some wretched mechanic whom Verrocchio got to pose for him. Charles Perkins justly criticizes the hardness of the lines, the stiffness of the style and the absence of all sentiment.
On the other hand look at the consummate youthful grace of the angelic tradition that was assigned to Leonardo! How the lion reveals himself with the first stroke of his paw and for what excellent reason did Verrocchio confess himself vanquished! It is not impossible that the background was also the work of the young beginner; it is a fantastic landscape, not unlike that of the Mona Lisa. The brown scale of colour, too, resembles that which Leonardo adopted, notably in the Saint Jerome, of the Vatican Gallery, in the Adoration of the Magi of the Uffizi (which, however, is only a sketch), in the Virgin of the Rocks and in the Mona Lisa.
In conclusion, Leonardo never dreamt, and for excellent reason, of looking to Verrocchio for ready-made formulae like those by which Raphael profited so long in Perugino’s studio. It was rather he who opened up to his astonished master unsuspected sources of beauty, which the latter scarcely had time to turn to account.


Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio , Study of the Angel of The Baptism of Christ , c. 1470. Metalpoint and ochre, 23 x 17 cm. Biblioteca Reale, Turin.


Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio , The Baptism of Christ , 1470-1476. Oil and tempera on wood panel, 177 x 151 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio , The Baptism of Christ (detail), 1470-1476. Oil and tempera on wood panel, 177 x 151 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Drapery for a Kneeling Figure , c. 1475. Brush, grey tempera and white highlights, 28.8 x 15 cm. The Barbara Piasecka Collection, Monaco.
Yet a contract was established between the two artists and it is with good reason that their names are inseparable in the history of art. If Leonardo played his part in his master’s progress, as demonstrated by the superior inspiration behind his later works, then the patient, laborious, obstinate Verrocchio taught him to think and to search - no small task. At the same time the goldsmith, master of perspective, sculptor, engraver, painter and musician, this eminently curious spirit must have broadened and opened his pupil’s mind to varied horizons as the scattering of his talents was then the greatest danger to threaten the young Leonardo.
At the beginning of Leonardo’s career, like every great artist, we meet with the legend and his first masterpiece.
“A farmer,” so the story goes, “asked Ser Piero da Vinci to get a shield that he had made out of the wood of a fig tree on his property in Florence. Ser Piero demanded his son to paint something on it, but without telling him where it came from. Thinking that the shield was warped and very roughly cut, Leonardo straightened it out by heat and sent it to a turner to plane and polish. After giving it a coating of plaster and arranging it to his satisfaction, he thought of a suitable subject to painting upon it – something that comes from nature to strike terror in anyone who might attack the owner of the piece of armour, after the manner of the Gorgon of old. From then on he collected, in a place to which he alone had access, a number of crickets, grasshoppers, bats, serpents, lizards and other strange creatures; by mingling these together he evolved a most horrible and terrifying monster, whose noisome breath filled the air with flames as it issued from a rift among gloomy rocks, black venom streaming from its open jaws, its eyes darting fire, its nostrils belching forth smoke. The young artist suffered severely from the stench arising from all these dead animals, but his ardour enabled him to endure it bravely to the end. The work was completed and neither his father nor the peasant coming to claim the shield, Leonardo reminded his father to have it removed. Ser Piero, therefore, came one morning to the room occupied by his son and knocked at the door; it was opened by Leonardo, who begged him to wait a moment before entering. The young man placed the shield on an easel in the window and arranged the curtains so that the light fell upon the painting in dazzling brilliancy. Ser Piero, forgetting the errand upon which he had come, experienced at the first glance a violent shock, never thinking that this was anything but a shield and, still less, that he was looking at a painting. He fell stepped back in alarm, but Leonardo restrained him. ‘I see, father,’ he said, ‘that this picture produces the effect I hoped for; take it, then and convey it to its owner.’ Ser Piero was greatly amazed and lauded the strange device adopted by his son. He then went secretly and purchased another shield, ornamented with a heart pierced by an arrow and this he gave to the peasant who doubtfully ever after regarded him with gratitude. Afterwards, Ser Piero sold Leonardo’s shield secretly to some merchants of Florence for 100 ducats and they, in their turn, easily obtained 300 for it from the Duke of Milan.”
This picture was long identified with the one in the Uffizi. However, the art oracles decided that it could not have been produced until long after the death of da Vinci and that it is the work of a cinquecentist who painted it from Vasari’s description. We know, however, from the testimony of an anonymous biographer that a Medusa that was painted by Leonardo was included in the collections of Cosimo de’ Medici around the middle of the sixteenth century. Cosimo’s inventory is not very precise; it mentions “ un quadro con una Furia infernale del Vinci semplice .”
The cartoon of The Fall has shared the fate of the Medusa . Here again we have to be content with Vasari’s description, corroborated by the testimony of the biographer edited by Milanesi.
Thus, from his early youth, Leonardo showed a taste for bizarre subjects: the monster painted on the shield, the Gorgon surrounded with serpents, so little in harmony with the prevailing taste of contemporary Italian artists, which was becoming more and more literary. Thus, in The Fall, he was engaged upon the reproduction of the very smallest details of vegetation. His burning curiosity searched into problems of the most intricate, not to say repulsive order.
Modern criticism, inconsolable at the loss of these early masterpieces, has ingeniously endeavoured to fill up a gap in Leonardo’s work by a series of productions which undoubtedly reveal the influence of the young artist, but which have been too hastily accepted as his own.
One of the earliest and most interesting among these is the Annunciation in the Louvre, in the gallery overlooking the river. This picture, which is of very small dimensions (16 cm high by 60 cm wide), was formerly arched at the top but is now rectangular. It was attributed to Lorenzo di Credi until Bayersdorfer, whose opinion was adopted by Morelli, proposed to give it the name of Leonardo. The curly-headed angel kneeling in a sort of ecstasy in front of the Virgin refers to the one in the Annunciation of the Uffizi. The Virgin, too, represents the Leonardesque type, with an added touch of morbidezza . This type was adopted by Boltraffio and many other Milanese pupils of the master. Although the impasto is very thick, the accessories – the desk in front of which the Virgin is seated and the seats near it – are rendered with infinite care. The little piece of landscape in the background is beautiful, tranquil and imposing. The trees, unfortunately, have blackened.
The Annunciation of the Louvre differs from that of the Uffizi firstly in its dimensions, its narrowness being quite abnormal and secondly, in the attitude of the Virgin, who is seen here in profile, while in the Uffizi picture she faces three-quarters to the front. This Virgin has been compared with a study of a head in the Uffizi. Another head, three-quarters face, in the library at Windsor, is also akin. On the other hand, the angel of the Louvre suggests that of the Uffizi in every way. The attitude is identical; he kneels on one knee, the right hand raised, the left falling to the level of the knee.


The Annunciation , 1472-1475. Oil on wood panel, 98 x 217 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


Portrait of a Young Girl , Ginevra de’ Benci , 1474-1476. Oil on wood panel, 38.1 x 37 cm. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
In spite of the charm of the composition, we may be permitted to hesitate as to its authenticity for various reasons. The Annunciation has a precision, a rigor and firmness of outline which is rarely found in the authentic works of Leonardo. He normally banished architecture as much as possible from his compositions (his only exception to this rule being his Last Supper), in order to leave a wider field for landscape and aerial perspective. The presence of the magnificent classical pedestal, which serves the Virgin for a reading desk, is also inspires some doubt. Would Leonardo, who rarely copied Greek or Roman sculptures, have been likely to reproduce this with such elaboration?
Following the two Annunciations, Leonardo creates a Virgin and Child , acquired in 1889 by the Munich Pinacothek and now known under the title of the Virgin with the Carnation . The history of this small painting (40 x 60 cm) is quite a romance! Sold at Günzburg for the modest sum of one guinea it was bought again almost immediately by the Pinacothek and instantly declared to be a masterpiece. It is a most enthralling work, combining a grand and dignified solemnity with extreme finish and consummate modelling; a penetrating poetic charm breathes from the picture. Even if the puffy cheeked rendition of the Child resembles somewhat too closely the rather unsympathetic type created by Lorenzo di Credi, the Virgin captivates us with the grace of her features and the elegance of her costume: a pale blue dress with very complicated modulations, a red bodice and sleeves and a yellow scarf falling over the right shoulder and on to the knees. This example is vaporous like many of da Vinci’s works. The impasto is rich in flesh tones (particularly those of the Child), which incline to blue.
According to Vasari, our sole guide for this period of the master’s life, Leonardo worked on sculpture as well as painting. At the same time he studied architecture, sketching out plans of buildings that were more picturesque than practical and lastly applied himself with ardour to study the question that he had a passion all his life, the movement of water. It was then that he drew up a project for the canalization of the Arno between Florence and Pisa.
During his first efforts as a sculptor, Leonardo executed busts of smiling women and children that were worthy of a finished artist. A bust dating from this period, Christ, was later in the possession of the Milanese painter-author, Lomazzo, who describes it as marked by a child-like simplicity and candour, combined with an expression of wisdom, intelligence and truly divine majesty.
We now know the models that inspired the young da Vinci; these were modelled after the productions of Verrocchio, the polychrome terracotta of the della Robbia. In the Trattato della Pittura he makes special mention of them though only in reference to their technique.
After 1478, we feel we are at last on firm ground. A drawing in the Uffizi, which Charles Ravaisson-Mollien called attention to inform us with some valuable indications bearing upon Leonardo’s work after he left Verrocchio. This drawing, inscribed with the date in question, shows us that by this time period the young master had already decided to study of these character-heads, beautiful or not, which were destined to occupy a very large place in his work. He sketched the portrait of a man about sixty, with a hooked nose, a bold and prominent chin, a very forcibly modelled throat; the expression is energetic and the whole composition as free as it is assured. All trace of archaism has disappeared; the flexibility of the treatment is extraordinary; the supreme difficulties in the interpretation of the human countenance are triumphantly surmounted. The sketch of 1478, somewhat softened, became a marvellous study in red chalk which is also in the Uffizi. Opposite this head, which attracts all eyes, is the head of a young man, very lightly sketched, with flowing languorous lines that are the very essence of Leonardo’s art. There are also sketches of mill wheels and something like an embryo turbine – the complete Leonardo already revealed. “On the… 1478, I began the two Virgins” is written above the drawing. We do not know who these two Madonnas were and their identity opens up a wide field for conjecture.
By this time, Leonardo’s fellow citizens and even the government had begun to take note of his fame. On Januray 1st, 1478, the Signory of Florence commissioned him to paint an altarpiece for the chapel of St Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio in the courtyard of Piero del Pollajuolo. The fate of this work was, alas, like that of so many others. Having thrown himself with ardour into the task (on the 16th March the same year he received 25 florins on account) the artist tired of it and the Signory was obliged, on 20 May 1483, to apply, first to Domenico Ghirlandajo and subsequently to Filippino Lippi, who carried out the commission in 1484. His picture, however, was not placed in the chapel of St Bernard but in the Hall of Lilies in the Palazzo Vecchio. Müller-Walde identifies the picture left unfinished by Leonardo with the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, in which other critics see the cartoon designed for the convent of San Donato at Scopeto. The Cicerone believes it may have been the St Jerome in the Vatican.
Leonardo’s thirtieth birthday was approaching and he was working on his own account. His reputation was then so established that in March 1481 the monks of the rich monastery of San Donato at Scopeto, beyond the Porta Romana, commissioned him to paint the altarpiece for their high altar, la Pala per l’Altare Maggiore .
The artist began working at once but, again yielding to his fatal tendency, he soon put the unfinished work aside. The monks waited patiently for about fifteen years. At last, in despair, they addressed themselves to Filippino Lippi. In 1496, more expeditious than Leonardo, he delivered the beautiful Adoration of the Magi, the brilliant and animated work that now hangs in the same room with Leonardo’s unfinished painting in the Uffizi.
However, there are several objections to this argument. The interval between Leonardo’s commission (1481) and Filippino’s (about 1496) is so great that the friars may very well have changed their minds and chosen a new subject. On the other hand, it is possible that Leonardo may have treated the same subject twice which is more likely.


The Madonna of the Carnation , c. 1470. Oil on wood panel, 62 x 47.5 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.


The Madonna with a Flower (The Madonna Benois) , 1475-1478. Oil on canvas transferred from wood, 49.5 x 33 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
In June 1481, the picture ordered by the monks of San Donate was so far advanced that the brothers made a purchase of ultramarine, a precious substance only used for definitive paintings. However, the Uffizi cartoon is simply a sketch in bistre. A further objection is that one of the studies for the Adoration of the Magi appears on the back of a sketch for Leonardo’s masterpiece, the Last Supper. This juxtaposition is difficult to explain if the cartoon was really painted in 1481, some ten years before the fresco. Finally, the style of the cartoon is akin, in parts, to that of Leonardo’s works of 1500 rather than that of youthful achievements, such as the Virgin of the Rocks. It has supple modelling and the over-elastic attitudes, in which the bony substructure is apt to disappear altogether.
Taking into account the methods dear to Leonardo, among his endless hesitations, it would be over-bold to attempt a solution of so delicate a problem of chronology furnished by documents in the archives. Let us be content, at present, to study the different phases through which the Adoration of the Magi passed before taking form in the Uffizi cartoon. We can trace these step by step in a number of drawings.
The earliest of the sketches preserved in the museum on the Rue Bassano, in which Leon Bonnat has collected so many mementos of the great masters, shows that Leonardo’s first intention was to paint an Adoration of the Shepherds, or Nativity, a subject we know him to have painted for the Emperor Maximilian. It represents the infant Jesus lying on the ground with the Virgin adoring and a child bending over Him.
Nude figures are grouped to the right and left, one which seems to have been inspired by the Silenus of the ancients, with his bald head, his long beard and the protuberant belly under his crossed arms,. This strange figure reappears in a drawing formerly in the Armand collection, now in that of Valton.
In short, there is not a figure in the group that does not testify to the enormous amount of work bestowed on the composition.
The spectators on either side call for our special attention. Some are full of majesty while others of eager animation. They are grouped with inimitable ease and liberty. By an artifice, the secrets of which were known to only the greatest dramatists, Leonardo opposes the calm of the people standing at the extremities and framing the composition, so to speak, to the emotional and passionate gestures of those who press towards the Virgin, or kneel before her.
Here, again, Raphael was inspired by Leonardo; he borrowed several of the worshippers placed to the left in his Dispute of the Sacrament, one of the most animated and eloquent of his groups. This imitation is very evident in a drawing in the late Duc d’Aumale’s collection. Three of the figures – the old man leaning forward, the young man in profile beside him and the man with his back to the spectator in the foreground – are almost exactly reproduced; as is the person standing on the extreme left, wrapped in a cloak with his chin resting on his hand. The breadth and majesty of this last figure inspired yet another artist, more powerful and original than Raphael, an artist who was always ready to cry out against plagiarism, though he himself did not fail to lay the works of his predecessors under contribution. I am referring to Michelangelo. Compare the figure of God the Father in his Creation of Eve in the Sistine Chapel with this old man of Leonardo’s. The analogy is striking.
In this Adoration of the Magi, which biographers have passed over almost in silence, we have, in fact, the germs of two masterpieces by Michelangelo and by Raphael. It is only men of genius like Leonardo who can thus lavish, to some extent unconsciously, treasures which make the fortunes of others, great and small. The background of the cartoon consists of classic ruins with crumbling arches, beneath which are animated groups of men on foot and on horseback; the double staircase is retained and several figures are seated on the steps on one side. Of all the episodes of the sacred story, the Adoration of the Magi is that which lends itself best to the introduction of the gypsy element. It must therefore have been especially attractive to Leonardo, at all times such an ardent lover of horses.
Without transgressing the rules of sacred imagery, he was able to indulge a taste on which, indeed, he had every reason to congratulate himself. He accordingly gives us some dozen horses in every variety of attitudes: lying down, standing, resting, walking, rearing and galloping. In the background to the right we have a regular cavalry skirmish, a forerunner of that in the Battle of Anghiari ; naked combatants struggling among the feet of horses on the ground, a naked woman flying in terror and so on.
One of the most learned of our modern art historians has given an excellent analysis of the technique of the cartoon: “Leonardo,” he says, “first made a very careful drawing with pen or brush on the prepared panel; he put the whole into perspective, as the drawing in the Uffizi shows; he then shaded with brown colour; but as he made use of a kind of bitumen, it has lowered very much in tone and, in his finished works, this bituminous colour has absorbed all the others and blackened the shadows extravagantly.”
Vasari, too, described Leonardo’s innovations in much the same tone: “He introduced a certain darkness into oil painting, which the moderns have adopted to give greater vigour and relief to their figures… Anxious to relieve the objects he represented as much as possible, he strove to produce the most intense blacks by means of dark shadows and thus to make the luminous parts of his pictures more brilliant; the result being that he gradually suppressed the highlights and that his pictures have the effect of night-pieces.”
Unconsciously or deliberately, Leonardo shows predilections no less pronounced with regard to colour harmonies. For the more or less crude harmonies of his predecessors, he substituted a subtle scale comprised of subdued tints, such as bistre and bitumen; in these matters he was more ingenious than Rembrandt himself. Here the theorist confirmed the tendencies of the practitioner. We must read chapter XXIV of the Trattato della Pittura to see with what irony he rallies the mediocre painters who hide their incompetence under a blaze of gold and ultramarine.
These various analyses will make it easy for us to characterize the progress realized, or I should perhaps say, the revolution accomplished, by Leonardo in painting. Studying nature with passion and all the sciences that tend to its more perfect reproduction – anatomy, perspective, physiognomy – and consulting classic models while preserving all the independence proper to his character, he could not fail to combine precision with liberty and truth with beauty. It is in this final emancipation, this perfect mastery of modelling, illumination and expression, this breadth and freedom, of which the master’s raison d’être and glory consists. Others may have struck out new paths also; but none travelled further or mounted higher.


Study for the Madonna and the Child with a Cat , c. 1478-1481. Pen and ink, 13.2 x 9.6 cm. British Museum, London.


The Adoration of the Magi (study), 1481 . Pen and brown ink, 28.4 x 21.3 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.


The Adoration of the Magi , 1481-1482. Yellow ochre and brown ink on wood panel, 246 x 243 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
The best informed of his biographers, the excellent Vasari, has well defined what was, in some sort, a providential mission.

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